If only we had an alpha dog!

Yearnings for a new start!

You may wonder about the title of this post?  Stay with me for a moment.

As has been written before on Learning from Dogs, when dogs were living in the wild just three animals had pack roles.  The leader of the pack, always a female animal, was the alpha dog. Second in command was the beta dog, always a dominant male, and the third role was the omega or clown dog.  The wild dog pack was thought to have consisted, typically, of about 50 animals.

Pharaoh
The wisdom of thousands of years showing clearly in Pharaoh’s eyes, our very own beta dog.

As leader of her pack an alpha dog had two primary functions .  One was having first choice as to the male dog she was going to mate with – thus demonstrating how women always choose! 😉

Her second important duty was deciding that her pack’s home range was insufficient for the needs of her ‘family’.  As wolves still do, wild dogs lived within small, well-defined territories when food was abundant.  When food became less abundant then it was time to move to more fertile grounds.  As an aside, research in South Africa as to the area requirements for a small pack of African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) shows they require from 65 square kilometers (25 square miles) to 150 sq. km. (58 sq. mi.). (See footnote.)

Dogs, like all wild animals, instinctively live in harmony with nature.  So the call from the alpha dog to find a new range didn’t mean they left their old one as a barren disaster area.  You can see where this is heading!

Wild dogs were in contact with early man at least 50,000 years ago. (Just reflect for a moment on the length of that relationship between man and dog.) So each specie has had plenty of time to learn from the other.

Thus, as mankind is on the verge of discovering that our existing ‘territory’ is becoming unsustainable for the healthy life of the species,  one fundamental learning point from dogs appears to have escaped us: Mankind doesn’t have a new range available to our species.

This preamble came to mind when I recently read a short but powerful essay on Alex Jones’ blog The Liberated Way.  The essay was called A global leaky bucket.  Alex has very kindly given me permission to republish it.

A global leaky bucket

Global weather extremes will force people to hard choices.

Nature will have the last word in the debate over sustainability.
Nature will have the last word in the debate over sustainability.

I write this in despair, it is snowing again here in Colchester UK.  I admit envy for those of you who live in California or Hong Kong area, I see your photographs where the seasons always seem to be warm and sunny.  The northern Jet Stream refuses to move, Greenland enjoys growing strawberries as the lambs die in the fields of Britain from the winter that refuses to let go.

The extremes of weather are noted in the South of the world as well as the North.  Argentina has had the worst floods in decades last week.  The cause is that the systems such as the Jet Stream are paralysed in one place, thus everyone suffers flood, drought or winter in excess.  Nobody is sure why this paralysis is going on with systems like the Jet Stream, some say it is climate change, the point is that we are experiencing this, and it appears to be more than a temporary issue.

My opinion is that these weather extremes are here to stay for the long duration.  One is then left with a harsh reality of does one seek to control the weather or adapt to the weather? How does one control the weather, a chaotic energy system where even a small change can have great consequences? Perhaps adaptation is the better option, but does one know how huge those adaptations will have to be where drought and flood could be lasting decades?

Lets say food, water and energy are all contained in a bucket.  We take a jug and scoop out from the bucket what we need.  There is a tap that is constantly running filling the bucket with the food, water and energy.  We waste those resources so the bucket leaks.  We disrupt or destroy the renewal systems in the ecosystems so the tap is no longer running as fast as it should.  We are greedy consumers so we take more than we need from the bucket with our jug.  How will the bucket look now? Is this a sustainable future to you?

If our global weather extremes continue as they are it will be like a storm rocking the bucket spilling its contents, will our bucket future look even less sustainable? Extreme weather destroys harvests, kills animals, sends already distressed ecosystems into the abyss.  What happens when the bucket is so empty that people can no longer enjoy their lifestyle of wasteful excess, or worse that people grow cold, hungry and thirsty? Do they sit there and do nothing but die? Will they fight? Who will fight who? As the bucket contents get ever smaller, who will win in the fighting for what is left?

Copyright (c) Alex Jones 2011-2013.

Colchester has a place in my past as I started and ran a business there between the years of 1978 to 1986.  More about that some other day.

Back to Alex’s essay.  It strongly resonated with a recent item on Peter Sinclair’s excellent blog Climate Denial Crock of the Week which I will refer to tomorrow.

So I will leave you with this tragic, emotional thought – where, oh where, is our alpha dog?

Footnote:  The figures for the ranges of wild dogs were taken from a fascinating paper published by Lindsay, du Toit and Mills that may be read here.

16 thoughts on “If only we had an alpha dog!

  1. So much one can learn from wolves. I am aware that wolves will also look after their own when injured, same goes for their ancestors the Dire Wolves. I am glad my blog post has been inspirational to you.

  2. Very well written.
    Have you noticed…any animal doesn’t kill more than he needs. But man, O’ man is a unique animal…his greed is far more than his need…
    You are right about the environment … I stay in India and it is already getting way too hot here (15 years back, it used to be pleasant here, now no more). Plus too many droughts, floods, calamities just add to the woes.

  3. Ok, philosophy central here. Sorry to break the bad news, but wolves do kill for fun. It’s a huge problem in the Hautes Alpes in France. The occasional wolf can kill 40 sheep or so. Just for fun, apparently.

    Notorious lupine serial killers get assassinated legally by the French government.

    I am all for wolves, thus also subscribing to the sheep killing party, though.

    BTW, I am a mountain runner, and I tend to run either a daybreak or dusk, to avoid heat (or just because the six hour run is turning into a 10 hours epic). Anyway, I have seen wolves (lions, mountain or not too, but that’s another story).

    Once I ran into the face of a wolf around a bend. Well above timber line. The wolf was hunting a terrified chamois who had just run the other way past me, close enough to touch it, a highly unusual behavior(!). Certainly a most marking moment. We looked at each other faces’ 3 meters apart.

    The wolf looked like a parody of the worst representations ever made in the Middle Ages: an enormous head, rendered even bigger by his red hair standing out in the scarlet light of sunset. What struck me the most was his yellow eyes, as lively and clever as that of a monkey. He was obviously having lots of questions, like what was a human being running into him at sunset? What sort of human was that? never seen one like that before. Shall he just squeeze by, just like the chamois or not? The magical moment extended for ever.

    I have also amused myself, long ago, throwing sugar in the air for (West) African wild dogs, lycaons (really wild). For some reason, they were twice larger than those in zoos I have seen since. They could snap a sugar in the air, well above the height of a tall man (i was safe as a child on a truck).

    Morality of all this? Canids are very much like us, indeed. But the message out there, in the wild, is nothing that most people on this site want to read. I am afraid. Or I would see them more often on my site (hahaha).

      1. Additive? Hmm… Let me bask into that. I may hope to become addictive too… Notice i did not try to play the attack dog I am usually… But I agree with Mados that I rose my eyebrows when I read the pack’s description above (I have had keen interest in wild dogs since my antics with Lycaons in my zeroes… So I read a lot…)

  4. I presume you are talking about wolf packs, but the social structure does not sound right. The alpha pair in a wolf pack are the parents to the rest of the wolves … That is what makes them alpha. So the female doesn’t have first ‘choice’ because the pack is produced (born) after that choice is made, and all the other males are her sons. A natural wolf pack can be compared to a standard human family, where the parents also are naturally in charge because they are the parents (except in dysfunctional families). The female alpha is dominant around the den when she has young pupppies, but otherwise is not necessarily more dominant than the male (or vice versa). And wolf dominance isn’t like a ‘chain of command’ where top members give orders like in a human military hierachy. Dominance has more to do with privileges, and can also fluctuate a bit with different contexts. The offspring are all ‘beta’, except for the one or a few clowns/’omega’ there may be (just as you describe), but that is because we call them so. They could also just be called offspring.

    Also, 50 is a very big pack size. Most pups leave the pack when they mature (otherwise they can never have puppies… only the alpha pair are allowed to breed, usually) and volves only breed once a year and have fairly small litter sizes. So it takes a long time for a natural wolf pack to build a pack of 50 – just think about how many years they need to do that.

    Captive wolf packs are of course a totally different story, and probably more similar to a large dog pack since these are all animals that are more or less orphaned and brough ‘randomly ‘together (~ not as part of a family structure).

    1. Come to think about the Australian Dingo; a present day wild dog. Although Dingo was supposedly domesticated prior to going feral in Australia, the pack structure of a Dingo pack is very similar to that of a wolf pack. Although Dingos are often spotted alone, they usually belong to a pack which they meet up with at specific locations. The reason they often hunt alone is simply the size and scarcity of prey under the harsh Australian outback condition – They do hunt larger game as a pack when they get the chance.

      Just like wolves, they only have one litter per pack per year – Only the alpha pair breeds. At least I have been told that is the background for the problems with the overpopulation of camp dogs in Aboriginal outback communities: people used to have Dingos, Dingos only have one litter per village per year (or something in that direction) and when European dogs replaced Dingo, the outback dog populations exploded, because the domestic dogs don’t have the ‘alpha rules’ that regulate the breeding cycle and limit pack sizes in wolves and Dingos.

      1. I don’t know where you have your theory from, it doesn’t sound like any other theory I have heard of. I am also unsure which wild dogs you mean, there are many types of wild canines, albeit the domestic dog is a sub-species of the grey wolf. I was thinking if you refer to domestic dogs gone feral and then forming packs somewhere I haven’t heard of. In that case, where are they and what are they called more specifically?

        Here is a brief research reference about wolf pack dynamics & Alpha roles: Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor
        in Wolf Packs
        (USGS Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center). You can also try the wolf research publications on Dave Mech’s website. You will find that what I said about wolf pack structure above is in line with the consensus in modern wolf pack research.

        Dominance Theory, based around the idea of Alpha, Beta and Omega roles, is based on Schenkel’s research from the 40s/50s. He drew a range of conclusions about the structure and behaviour of wolf packs based on studies of captive wolf packs, and from that evolved a range of assumptions about dog behaviour and dog pack structure that heavily influenced dog training.

        However, later studies of wolf packs undertaken in the wild in the 70s showed that the earlier conclusions about wolf pack structure were wrong. Natural wolf packs work fundamentally different from captive wolf packs, and are in fact nuclear families with little or no dominance contests, so the whole alpha-concept is barely relevant to understanding natural wolf pack dynamics at all.

        Schenkel’s theories are sometimes included in publication lists about wolf research for historical reasons, but are considered outmoded by newer research.

      2. My comment written today (18th of April) sits in your moderation filter due to 2 links. Can you take it out please? Thanks:-)

      3. More here:

        Outmoded notion of the alpha wolf

        The concept of the alpha wolf is well ingrained in the popular wolf literature at least partly because of my book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, published in 1970, republished in paperback in 1981, and currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it. Although most of the book’s info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years then in all of previous history.

        One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. “Alpha” implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today, the “breeding male,” “breeding female,” or “male parent,” “female parent,” or the “adult male” or “adult female.” In the rare packs that include more than one breeding animal, the “dominant breeder” can be called that, and any breeding daughter can be called a “subordinate breeder.”

        Quote by Dave Mech.

  5. I assume the concept of alpha dog is similar to the concept of alpha wolf in the wolf pack? I read this book, Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult, it was pretty much about that, I didnt know dogs functioned the same way!
    With warm wishes,
    -Naima.

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